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The Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke

January 26th, 2020

wildfire smoke

The world has been watching the news about the brush fires in Australia for weeks and hoping for rain to put an end to the infernos. My family and I had the privilege of visiting that beautiful country in April 2018. Our hearts go out to everyone living in or near the fires. 

Fortunately, help is pouring in from all corners of the globe. Together with your help, I was able to participate by donating $10,000.00 to Zoos Victoria to help save Australia’s wildlife endangered by the raging brushfires there. 

The fact is, this is not an event isolated to a far corner of the planet. This is a global issue and a growing problem for a variety of reasons I’ll get into in just a moment. 

Thankfully, there are concrete actions we can take to protect ourselves from the health effects on our bodies that can result from the smoke of forest fires. I’ll share those with you here. I’ll also discuss the impact of the fires globally and what we can do for the health of our planet as well.

Why Are There So Many Forest Fires?

Recently, there have been massive fires in California, Russia, the Amazon rainforest, and now in Australia which has lost at least 12 million acres of bushland since September. In fact, forest fires are becoming more common — as well as larger — because of changes to our climate. 

Two-thirds of the 1.4-degree average increase in global temperature that has happened since 1880 occurred since 1975.1 While that may not seem like a big increase, in many parts of the world, that increase results in less rain and much less snow. In turn, that means less snowmelt in spring to keep forests wet during the summer. Soil dries out earlier and stays dry longer. 

This has a negative impact in several ways. Mature plants die off and new ones fail to grow. Insects such as bark beetles and mountain pine beetles thrive in the warmer, drier climates. They kill millions of trees that then become kindling for wildfires. 

These forest fires can start by simple human error like a stray spark or ember. They are often the result of lightning strikes though, and unfortunately even arson. Under certain conditions, scientists theorize forest fires may even result from the electromagnetic frequencies generated by 5G.

What is Smoke?

This may seem like an odd question, yet it’s something many of us haven’t ever really thought about. What we see as smoke is really a mixture of particulate matter and chemicals that are produced by the incomplete burning of carbon-containing materials. All living matter on Earth contains carbon. All smoke contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and particulate matter, called PM or soot.

Additionally, smoke can contain many different toxic chemicals including aldehydes, acid gases, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), benzene, toluene, styrene, metals, and dioxins. I discuss these toxins more in this article. Wildfires can have any of these chemicals if they burn manufactured materials including homes and cars, which even fires in rural areas generally do.

What is the Health Impact of Fire and Smoke?

Depending on the extent of the fire, wildfire smoke can persist for weeks or months and have immediate and long-term impacts on air quality and our health. Of course, there is also the stress of dealing with a frightening and dangerous situation that can impact mental and physical health immediately and over time.

Additionally, two major agents in smoke can cause health problems. Those are carbon monoxide and small particulate matter. Inhaling carbon monoxide decreases the body’s oxygen supply. In low exposures, this can cause headaches, reduce alertness, and aggravates the heart condition angina. In higher concentrations, it can be fatal.

Very small particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less (as a comparison, 25,400 microns equal an inch) can travel deeply into your lungs. Individually, these particles are too small to be visible to the naked eye, however together they are what we see as smoke. 

Once in the lungs, they cause respiratory irritation and shortness of breath. These fine particles can also make asthma, and heart and lung diseases worse. Symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, and chest tightness due to decreased lung function can persist.

One small study found that exposure to high levels of tiny particulate matter impairs the immune system of children. Stanford University researchers found changes in a gene involved in the development and function of T cells, an important component of the immune system. The alteration made the gene less capable of producing T regulatory cells. The same children also had significantly fewer Th1 cells, another component of the immune response, when compared with unexposed kids.2

Scientists also studied monkeys who had been exposed to smoke when a forest fire broke out near a lab where they lived. Those monkeys experienced similar genetic changes to the ones in children in the Stanford study. Further research on the monkeys showed this genetic effect could even be passed down to offspring.

Finally, researchers think that smoke, by provoking oxidative stress, may contribute to the autoimmune disease lupus by dysregulating DNA methylation. Additionally, because smoke alters the lung environment, it can facilitate infections that lead to autoimmune conditions.3 I personally saw the effects toxins can have on autoimmunity with patients in my clinic.

What to Do To Protect Yourself

There are, fortunately, steps you can take to reduce exposure and protect and support your body. First and foremost, if you are ordered to evacuate by emergency officials, do not delay! Every moment matters. With that said, preventing exposure to toxins overall is the best option.

  1. Leave the area if at all possible or go to a clean air shelter if one is available.
  2. If those are not options, stay indoors with windows closed and air conditioner on. 
  3. Filter the air inside your home with a portable air filter. With a high-efficiency filter, these devices can reduce indoor particulate concentrations by as much as 85%. High efficiency (HEPA) filters can also be purchased for central heating and cooling units, reducing indoor-air particulate matter by as much as 95%.4 
  4. When you venture outside, protect your lungs by wearing a HEPA filter or dust mask. 
  5. Don’t increase particulate matter in the indoor air by lighting candles, smoking, or vacuuming. 
  6. Stay hydrated with filtered water, particularly if your water comes from a municipal water source with outdoor water storage where particles may settle, rather than a private well that pumps underground water. Filters can be whole-house (this is the ideal option), attached to the kitchen sink, or incorporated in pitchers that you fill from the tap.
  7. Avoid exertion that leads to heavy breathing, particularly outdoors. 
  8. Try these comforting solutions:
    • Red, Itchy Eyes — Use cold water compresses and homeopathic eye drops that include extracts of eyebright, pasque flower, and sabadilla lily. 
    • Headache — Try a tincture of natrum Arsenicum, a long-standing homeopathic remedy for headaches, especially those stemming from smoke inhalation or general air pollution. Warm compresses or heating pads applied to the back of the neck can help ease tension headaches from stress.
    • Sinusitis — Use a saline mist or spray to flush out nasal passages.
    • Sore Throat — Supplement with Leaky Gut Revive®. The marshmallow root and slippery elm in this formula maximize mucous membrane health. Sucking slippery elm lozenges can also lend relief.
  9. Detoxify your Body — I cannot stress enough how important this is, especially for those exposed over the longer term.
    • Clear toxins with Coconut Charcoal. My coconut charcoal is ground to a fine powder with maximum surface area and a negative electric charge to bind with and move toxins out of your body.
    • Detox with Glutathione. This, your body’s most efficient free radical scavenger, is rapidly depleted when you’re under a heavy toxic burden. Supplementing will boost levels to help your body naturally detoxify.
    • If available, use an infrared sauna to eliminate toxins through the skin by sweating. Your skin is your largest organ and sweating is one of the most efficient ways to detox.
    • Consider hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which involves breathing pure oxygen in a controlled environment. A small study has shown this to be useful in treating smoke inhalation.5

What is the Impact on Our Planet?

I talked a bit about how the changing climate has impacted forest fires. Did you know that forest fires, in turn, are impacting the health of our planet as a whole? Evidence is showing that fires as massive as the one in Australia can impact the weather far from the site. 

The heat from a fire this size rises and creates instability in the atmosphere and can generate pyrocumulonimbus clouds. These clouds don’t generate much-needed rain. Instead, they can generate lightning, causing fires in new regions or even, in some cases, tornados.  

A recent study found that the smoke from wildfires in Russia reduced the amount of incoming solar radiation over much of Eastern Europe. Sunlight just couldn’t get through the dense smoke cloud. This resulted in cooler temperatures on the ground. The smoke and haze cause cooling at the surface, yet dark spots in the column of air may actually absorb solar energy, which warms that part of the atmosphere, creating instability.

Another study showed that towering smoke-laden clouds can penetrate into the stratosphere.6 Using the 2017 fires in the Pacific Northwest, researches found from modeling studies that the smoke can linger in the stratosphere up to five months. It can actually create warming at the top of the atmosphere because it contains soot which absorbs solar radiation. 

According to NASA, once in the stratosphere 10 miles above the earth, the smoke can travel thousands of miles from its source. This affects the atmosphere globally. In fact, by January 8 the smoke had traveled to Argentina, causing hazy skies over that country.7

Finally, fires — particularly those in fragile or unique environments such as Australia which has been in a drought for quite some time, or the Amazon — not only destroy habitats, they may also wipe out individual species. And because everything on our planet is interdependent, the loss of one species can have a ripple effect everywhere.

How Can I Make a Difference?

Carbon dioxide is the climate’s worst enemy. It’s released when oil, coal, and other fossil fuels are burned for energy — the energy we use to power our homes, cars, and electronics. It may not be glamorous, however, reducing our carbon footprint is the most critical thing we can do to stop climate change.

  1. Donate
    Give to the organization of your choice to help support the environment and to promote climate change awareness. Some options include:
  2. Speak up
    Make sure your state and local representatives know that climate change is important to you. You can directly email every senator by following this link and searching for each name. Mailing addresses in their home states and their Washington offices, as well as their telephone numbers, can also be found there.
  3. Vote
    We in America are fortunate to live in a democracy, and many of our friends around the globe enjoy the same privilege. Here’s a list of elections around the world this year. Here at home, not only we will be going to the polls in 2020 to pick the next president, all the seats in the House and 34 of 100 Senate seats will be up for grabs. Also, at least 11 states and two territories will hold gubernatorial elections. Please research your candidate’s position on climate change and use your vote wisely for the health of our planet. 
  4. Power your home with renewable energy
    Many utilities now list other ways to support renewable sources on their monthly statements and websites.
  5. Weatherize
    Make your space more energy efficient by sealing drafts and ensuring it’s adequately insulated. Heating and cooling require a lot of energy.
  6. Replace older appliances with energy-efficient models
    Since they were first implemented nationally in 1987, efficiency standards for appliances have kept 2.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the air.
  7. Pull the plug
    Many electronic devices, especially smart devices, use energy even when they’re not charging. Don’t leave fully charged devices plugged into your home’s outlets, unplug rarely used devices or plug them into power strips and timers, and adjust your computers and monitors to automatically power down to the lowest power mode when not in use.
  8. Build with green materials
    If you’re building a home, remodeling, or adding an addition, use sustainable building materials. For the most part, this means skipping wood as much of the lumber for building comes from clear-cut forests.
  9. Reduce water waste
    If just one out of every 100 American homes was retrofitted with water-efficient fixtures, about 100 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year generated by power plants would be saved — avoiding 80,000 tons of global warming pollution.8 There are smaller things you can do too, including turning off the water while brushing your teeth. The city manager of Oslo, Norway, where water shortages are surprisingly common, suggests peeing in the shower to conserve water.9 Even a low-volume toilet uses about 1.5 gallons per flush.
  10. Eat the food you buy
    Approximately 10 percent of U.S. energy use goes into growing, processing, packaging, and shipping food—about 40 percent of which just winds up in the landfill.
  11. Choose grass-fed meats
    Despite what many people think, grass-fed and finished meats actually help the environment. Not only do they restore soil microbial diversity, they make land more resilient to flooding and drought. They require a large amount of grassland and because grasses trap atmospheric carbon dioxide, grass-fed animals can also help fight climate change.
  12. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
    Scientists estimate that in the US alone, the extraction and transportation of the fossil fuels needed to feed our plastic habit emits 12.5 to 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.10 Anything we do to reduce our reliance on plastics, including using glass and skipping plastic shopping bags will help.
  13. Plant trees
    Without even converting existing farmland or urban areas, scientists have determined that existing ecosystems could support nearly an additional billion hectares of continuous forest. That’s an increase of 25%. This has the potential to offset more than 200 gigatons of carbon.11 Everyone can participate in this effort by planting trees themselves or contributing to charities like earthday.org’s Canopy Project, or onetreeplanted.org.
  14. Maintain your car
    If all Americans kept their tires properly inflated, we could save 1.2 billion gallons of gas each year. A simple tune-up can boost miles per gallon anywhere from 4 percent to 40 percent, and a new air filter can get you a 10 percent boost.
  15. Rethink Transportation
    Walk or ride bikes if you can. If not, map your trips so that you accomplish all your tasks in one journey. Less frequent flying can make a big difference, too. If it’s possible to take a train instead of a plane, opt for that.

Together We Really Can Make a Difference

It’s not just government and industry that can make an impact. There are more than 7 billion of us on this planet. If we all take small steps it adds up to big changes in our environment, in our personal health, and in public health. Take care of yourself and our planet; be safe and make a difference.

Article Sources

  1. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/DecadalTemp
  2. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/all.13825
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26772647
  4. https://www3.epa.gov/airnow/smoke_fires/indoor-air-filtration-factsheet-508.pdf
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4093574
  6. https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2019GL082360
  7. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2020/nasa-animates-world-path-of-smoke-and-aerosols-from-australian-fires
  8. https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/energywater.pdf
  9. https://www.lifeinnorway.net/oslo-residents-pee-in-the-shower-to-save-water-says-city-official/
  10. https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/08/how-plastics-contribute-to-climate-change/
  11. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6448/76

Physician-Forumlate Immune Support from Amy Myers MD

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